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District Attorney Neal Pinkston talks outside of Judge Tom Greenholtz's courtroom.

What is a 'validated' gang member?

Police use a standardized point system to evaluate whether a person is a validated gang member, awarding points for various indicators of gang membership, like gang tattoos, throwing gang signs in photos on social media, and self-profession of gang membership. Validated gang members tally more points than known associates.

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East Lake gang injunction

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Safety zone

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Thirty-one gang members may soon be prohibited from partaking in a number of activities with other known gang members within a roughly two-mile "safety zone" in Chattanooga. But the American Civil Liberties Union says the idea is reminiscent of a controversial strategy called "broken windows policing."

After discussing safety zones in July, Hamilton County District Attorney General Neal Pinkston filed a 31-page petition Monday calling for a court to officially label the Gangster Disciples and the Grape Street Crips as public nuisances in the East Lake Courts neighborhood.

If a court accepts the request, then officers will have wide latitude to stop 31 listed gang members in that region from participating in 11 listed activities, most of which are already illegal, Pinkston said at a news conference outside the Boys and Girls Club at Fourth Avenue and 25th Street.

That means drinking beer, owning graffiti equipment, carrying guns and drugs, signaling the arrival of a police officer, and intimidating, confronting, annoying, harassing, threatening, challenging, assaulting, battering, provoking or associating with another known gang member in public areas could all be off the table — and violations mean a possible 30-day jail sentence and $50 fine.

"This isn't about us," Pinkston said, motioning to the numerous law enforcement officers who helped conceive the petition, as well as Ruthie Wright, an East Lake resident who said she continues to walk her 17-year-old granddaughter to the bus stop every morning out of fear of her being shot.

"It's about the people of East Lake," Pinkston said. "It's a tool for law enforcement."

Though authorities will begin serving the 31 listed gang members with documentation about the prohibition, nothing is official, Pinkston said, until Monday, when Criminal Court Division I Judge Barry Steelman is scheduled to hear the petition at 1:30 p.m.

At that time, Pinkston will present proof for his petition, while the 31 listed men can defend themselves or ask to "opt out" of the petition altogether. To dismiss themselves, though, gang members must file proper notice, declare in a written statement they're reformed men, and prove they haven't been arrested in the past two years. Records show at least 13 of the 31 listed men have pending charges in Hamilton County.

To validate someone as a gang member, officers use a series of factors such as tattoos, articles of clothing, social media, and confessions. They only need 10 points to make the ID. And anything less makes someone an associate.

Pinkston and Chattanooga police Chief Fred Fletcher stressed Monday that backers of the petition want to target validated gang members. Not associates. Or budding 13-year-olds who post pictures on Facebook.

Tom Castelli, legal director of the ACLU in Tennessee, said he read the petition and had a few concerns.

"In this initial part, they've got to serve the individuals they think are going to be under this order and let them come into court and prove they're in a gang before they start enforcing it on them at all," Castelli said.

Castelli said he studied other injunctions, which gained popularity in California in the 1980s, where police officers walked up to targeted people with the court order, told them they're part of it, then drove around the block only to return a few minutes later and arrest them for standing next to another gang member.

"That can't work," Castelli said. "They have to hand him a petition. He has to have his own day in court before he's added to the order. That's how it's supposed to work. But the petition is very silent on that."

And the petition is reminiscent, he said, of broken windows policing, where authorities have more power to arrest people for smaller crimes. Especially if broadly written sections become enforceable, or if otherwise legal activities, such as drinking alcohol, become illegal for gang members to be around, he added.

Kevin Muhammad, the student representative of the Nation of Islam in Chattanooga who has criticized "safety zones" before, said he read about the injunction request and thought the two gangs being banned were "the Democrats and Republicans."

"Why not create an economic zone, an educational zone, an entrepreneur's zone?" Muhammad asked. "Why not take our young brothers who are involved in a negative lifestyle, many of whom do not have fathers in their homes, are not properly educated, and do not have the economic opportunities to get out of their current situations — why not try to help them? Why use the law against them rather than use the law to help them?"

There's been considerable debate on how to use the law in this issue.

Nearly one year ago, Pinkston said the city's $1 million Violence Reduction Initiative asked him to cross an ethical line by targeting particular defendants. That was 19 months into the initiative, which calls for the district attorney to deliver heavy-handed prosecution against targeted groups and gang members as part of a partnership among police, federal agents and probation officers.

In February, a Times Free Press analysis showed most offenders arrested through VRI enforcement actions were largely sentenced to probation on misdemeanors, which are harder to prosecute. Pinkston said his assistant district attorneys paid special attention to VRI cases when the facts allowed, that he couldn't change the way his office prosecuted, and that he was looking into civil nuisance abatements.

On Monday, Pinkston said he and several local law enforcement partners began pooling the data and discussing the concept of safety zones in April.

Asked if his petition marked a shift in his approach to dealing with gang violence, Pinkston's spokeswoman, Melydia Clewell, said he has not shifted at all and will continue following state law.

"He has and will continue encouraging law enforcement to use Tennessee's gang enhancement statute appropriately," Clewell said in an email. "It is illegal for law enforcement and prosecutors to randomly target gang members for stiffer penalties when their crimes are not proven to be related to gang business. This means prosecutors can only seek enhanced penalties against gang members when their crimes have a proven gang-related nexus.

"Obviously, the petition filed today focuses exclusively on gang related activities and the furtherance of gang business in a specific neighborhood."

Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at zpeterson@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6347. Follow on Twitter @zackpeterson918.

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